To and From Rila Monastery

I admit that one of Bulgaria’s big draws for me was that the average American would probably not be able to come up with a single noteworthy thing to say about it, except perhaps that it used to be on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. What a delight, then, to find in this unknown country such beauty, with vine-covered trellises, red-tiled roofs, snow-capped mountains, tomato-hoeing Babushkas, road-blocking donkeys: all your standard fairy-tale bucolic schtick, with no trace of pretense. All the better when punctuated occasionally by large-scale Soviet sculpture.

Hazel and I took public transport out of Sofia towards Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s biggest attraction this side of the Black Sea coast. We were pretty much the last people on the local bus as it pulled into the monastery parking lot, where we met up with about a dozen luxury tourist coaches. The monastery grounds themselves were tourist central, so Hazel and I connived to take a two-hour hike up to the grave of St. Ivan of Rila, and by the time we got back the masses of day-trippers had gone back to Sofia. We booked a room in the monastery itself, and so had the grounds pretty much to ourselves until dark. You should have seen the look on the monk-receptionist’s (long black robe, long black beard) face when we gesture-asked if perhaps they had a room with one double-bed instead of a room with three singles.

It was a beautiful place; the view from our (spartan!) room was in fact the picture on the front of our guidebook. The next morning we walked around the grounds a few last times, and almost couldn’t find a way out; we missed the morning bus to town, and the locals told us it would be maybe six hours before the afternoon bus swept through. Hazel and I sort of bemoaned our fate opportunistically in the parking lot, and pretty soon a middle-aged couple offered us a ride. Friendly pair, a Dutch woman and a Greek man on a trip towards Romania, and they dropped us near the bus station in town. Just as we finished thanking them we saw the bus to Blagoevgrad whiz by. Good thing our Cyrillic is getting keen! We chased the bus for about half a block, waving our hands. I caught sight of the Greek guy standing with his hands on his hips, shaking his head at us. The bus slowed, and we were promptly off to our day’s destination.

Blagoevgrad, where I write, is a university town with huge swaths of cafe life strewn about an enormous pedestrian zone in the center of town. I get the impression that, culturally, Bulgaria has pretty easily shrugged off its communist past. Then again, my imagination of life in a communist country is surely caricaturish: factories and bread lines. The Bulgaria that I’ve seen so far has been vibrant and really pleasant.

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